The bullpen was a huge strength for the Pirates during the 2015 season. They finished second in the NL in fWAR, first in ERA, fourth in xFIP, and first in WPA, while having the most shutdowns and the second fewest meltdowns.

During the off-season last year, it looked like they might start to dismantle that bullpen by trading Mark Melancon. That didn’t happen, and instead the Pirates entered the 2016 season with more money committed to their bullpen than ever before, and the look of another strong group. Not only did they bring Melancon back for close to $10 M, but they also brought in Neftali Feliz for just under $4 M, and Juan Nicasio for $3 M. They joined Tony Watson, who was making $3.45 M, and Jared Hughes, making $2.175 M.

For a team projected to spend around $100 M, using over 20% of those funds on the bullpen was a bit bold, and went against the tradition of the Pirates to go with cheaper options in the pen.

That investment didn’t work out in 2016. The Pirates finished 12th in the NL in fWAR, fifth in ERA, eighth in xFIP, eighth in WPA, seventh in shutdowns, and eighth in meltdowns. They were a middle of the pack group at best, which is not the result you want to see from 20% of your payroll.

There are many reasons for the bullpen struggles this year. The poor off-season approach with the starting pitching led to some of the initial problems. Nicasio was signed to be a strength for the bullpen, but was used in the rotation at the start of the year. He had a 5.05 ERA and a 4.27 xFIP in 62.1 innings as a starter, compared to a 3.88 ERA and a 3.03 xFIP in 55.2 innings as a reliever. Had he started the year in the bullpen as planned, things might have been better.

But Nicasio alone wouldn’t have helped. One of the biggest issues for the Pirates in the bullpen this year was that Tony Watson did not show up with the same stuff he had in previous years. Watson was one of the best relievers in the game from 2013-15. In that span, he ranked 16th in fWAR, 10th in ERA, 54th in xFIP, 2nd in WPA, and 3rd in shutdowns among 169 qualified relievers.

This year he finished 115th in fWAR, 54th in ERA, 98th in xFIP, 65th in WPA, 26th in shutdowns, and 66th in fewest meltdowns among 135 qualified relievers. At best, he was middle of the pack, and in that way, he was a microcosm of the Pirates’ bullpen. Coming into the year, he looked great, with some high expectations. By the end of the year, he struggled enough that his results had him as a replacement level reliever.

It wasn’t just Watson’s fault for the bullpen struggling. Jared Hughes struggled after putting up some decent numbers in 2015. Arquimedes Caminero did the same. Neftali Feliz started strong, but faded down the stretch. Even Mark Melancon didn’t have his best results. The actual ERA was good, but the advanced metrics were down from previous years.

Things got so bad that A.J. Schugel ended up being one of the more reliable relievers in the bullpen by the middle of the season. That’s not a knock on Schugel, as his season was a good one before being shut down with an injury. But if I told you before the season that A.J. Schugel would be the third most valuable reliever, or even that Wade LeBlanc would rank 4th in fWAR, you would have thought the bullpen would be a disaster. And that would have been correct.

The Pirates tried to counter this by bringing in new blood in the second half. They added Antonio Bastardo at the deadline in a swap for Jon Niese. Bastardo only posted replacement level numbers, but that was higher than guys like Caminero, Hughes, Watson, and Feliz. They traded Caminero for two lottery tickets in the lower levels. They brought in a series of September relief options like Phil Coke and Zach Phillies, with most of them being replacement level. Wade LeBlanc ended up the best of the bunch, putting up some good numbers as a reliever in just 12 innings.

The biggest addition in the second half was the addition of Felipe Rivero. However, this came with the subtraction of Mark Melancon. By that point, the season didn’t matter, and while the Pirates were still technically in the race at the time of the trade, their inability to be more than a .500 team for most of the season suggested that if they made the playoffs, they would have been eliminated by now. They traded Melancon, rather than watching him walk as a free agent, and got the hard throwing lefty Rivero for the next five years.

Overall, the bullpen struggles helped lead to a down year where the entire pitching staff struggled, and now lead to some questions about how the bullpen will look next year.

The Future

This time last year, the bullpen looked like it would have been a strength if the Pirates kept Melancon and most of the guys from the 2015 roster. That wasn’t the case, mostly due to the other guys from the 2015 roster, and not as much with Melancon. And now we’re looking at a bullpen that has question marks next year, with no Melancon, putting us in the exact opposite situation as last year.

It’s important to note that bullpens can be unpredictable, as relievers are very volatile. That led to a situation where a strong looking bullpen led to weak results in 2016. It could also lead to a situation where a weak looking bullpen might lead to strong results in 2017.

I don’t think the Pirates should bank on this happening though. They should definitely take this approach with Watson. He had a bad year in 2016, but his success before that shows that he’s a guy you want to stick with. I think that getting him back on track requires fixing something that was wrong with his approach this year, and hopefully that can be done before next season.

If the classic version of Watson is back, then the bullpen already looks strong from the start. You have Watson as the closer, followed by a hard throwing right-hander in Nicasio and a hard throwing left-hander in Rivero. Add in middle relief options like Schugel, Bastardo, LeBlanc, and some of the lower ranked starting pitching prospects like Steven Brault and Trevor Williams, and you’ve got the makings of a good bullpen.

I don’t think the Pirates are set though. They could use another late inning guy to help strengthen the back of the bullpen. If all works out well, then you’ve got the 7th-9th innings locked down with Watson, Nicasio, Rivero, and the new guy. If something doesn’t work along the way, you have a guy who can step up as extra depth if one of the other relievers struggles or gets injured.

I’m not about to get into the possible options for the Pirates, since there are numerous bullpen options every year via trade or free agency. I’ll just say that they need to add a guy to help anchor down the late innings and improve the depth. It also wouldn’t hurt to add a lot of depth. While Schugel, Bastardo, and LeBlanc are good options for the 5th-7th spots in the bullpen, I don’t think you just settle with those guys (and I’m not entirely convinced that Bastardo and LeBlanc start the year with the Pirates).

In the past, following years with stronger bullpens, I’ve talked with Neal Huntington about the negotiations with free agent relievers, and how the lack of options in Pittsburgh was a problem at times in attracting free agents looking for opportunities. That shouldn’t be an issue this year, and the Pirates should be in a position to add a few relievers, as they definitely have opportunities.

The long-term isn’t really worth sorting out for the bullpen, as relievers can come from so many places. This time last year, I wasn’t even including Nicasio and Rivero in the future projections. So we have no clue who will be in the mix as relievers in 2018, let alone the years beyond 2018.

I will point to the starting pitching depth the Pirates have in the minors. They’ve got a lot of guys who project as middle or back of the rotation options. Jameson Taillon and Chad Kuhl have established themselves as starters, and Tyler Glasnow is still on the starting path, but Steven Brault and Trevor Williams might find themselves as relievers in the long-term. I think Nick Kingham has a higher upside than those two, but he could initially make it as a reliever, depending on the circumstances. Then there’s guys like Tyler Eppler, Brandon Waddell, and Clay Holmes, who might also be pushed to the bullpen due to depth.

The Pirates won’t get all of their future relievers from the farm system, but we’re now entering a time when they have so many upper level starting pitching prospects that it only makes sense to start transitioning some of them to the bullpen. That could start to happen in the minors in 2017. But before that happens, they need to focus on strengthening the 2017 bullpen this off-season.

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38 COMMENTS

  1. Biggest bullpen mistake ? Not keeping Joe Blanton. Keep he and JA Happ and theres a pretty good chance Melancon might not have been traded when he was. And if you want to call out ” backstabbers”, blame position players who seriously under performed not only their predictions but their career averages.

  2. “By that point, the season didn’t matter…”.

    Unquestionably, the single most factually inaccurate thing I’ve ever read from you, Tim.

    • I said it at the time, even before Melancon was traded. The team looked like they might have had a shot at the Wild Card, but absolutely had no chance to make it past the NLDS.

      • NH must’ve read your writings and believed it, since he’s the only GM in the history of MLB to trade away his most effective Pitcher at the trade deadline while being in a playoff chase.

        As for this fan, I’ll always remember this season as the one the GM stabbed the team (and us fans) in the back.

        • It ain’t the GM…
          How many of the 15 teams with the lowest payrolls made the playoffs this year?

          When you tell your GM that his budget is $100M you need to be both lucky and creative in today’s baseball where a pretty mediocre pitcher like Ian Kennedy can get a five year/$70M deal at age 31.

          Melancon was never going to be on this team next year – not because Huntington didn’t want him – but because of the cap on payroll he is given to work with won’t allow it.

          Change the $100M to $125M and the moves you and others are angry about don’t happen.

        • If he would have kept Melancon, there would be off-season articles right now about how the Pirates didn’t make it:

          A. To the playoffs
          B. Past the Wild Card game
          C. Past the Cubs

          …and how they will now watch Mark Melancon leave as a free agent with no compensation.

          Instead, we have off-season articles about how Felipe Rivero, a hard throwing lefty reliever, is under control for five years, while Taylor Hearn, a hard throwing lefty prospect, is adjusting his mechanics to fix his command so he can stick as a starter.

          If that is being stabbed in the back, then I’d prefer to be stabbed.

          • The economics of the game are a mess. Until that is fixed, small market teams will continue to have a small window of opportunity.

          • My point is, today we know how the season played out. On July 31st, there was only speculation on how the season would play out. By stating in the article, by the time the Melancon trade was made, the season was lost, you were speculating.

            • An outlook that fatalistic at the time of the deadline also begs the question of why the hell waste two prospects on Ivan Nova if the season had already been lost?

              It’s pure cognitive dissonance to maximize long term value in one move but do the literal opposite in another unless one believes the playoffs were still a target, and if that’s the case, then your stance is certainly justified.

              I don’t happen to 100% agree with it – I think the damage had already been done and playoff chances were too small to worry about – but nothing about this deadline made a shred of sense.

            • The definition of speculating is to form a theory without firm evidence.

              There was firm evidence that the Pirates weren’t going to advance. They were around a .500 team most of the year. They were 3-9 against the Cubs to that date — a team they needed to take 3/5 from to advance past the NLDS. And that assumes they would have made it past the Wild Card game, which assumes they had a pitcher who could compete in that game. At the time of the trade, the rotation looked like it was a mess, and didn’t look like a rotation that could compete in a playoff series. That didn’t change with the addition of Nova.

              I wasn’t speculating. I was analyzing the team. I was using the evidence we had, and saying that this team, at the very best, would have been eliminated in the NLDS, and they would have been lucky to make it that far.

              • There are some memes that i find very annoying on this site.
                1. The trade for Nova was some sort of strategic move to stay in the wild card hunt – this is total bull crap – hell Nova was not even the Yankee pitcher the Pirates were supposed to be interested in – it was a crap shoot – it worked out ok – in fact it got them back in the WC race for a brief time.
                2. That holding on to Melancon and Liriano and the $25M in salary they represent would some how have resulted in them playing in the World Series – the folks that believe that are insane – dellusional!
                3. And you folks who think prospects are risk free need to do some research on what % of top 10 team prospects ever sniff the grass in a MLB park….

          • Rivero sucks. He won’t be with the Pirates two years from now so who cares if he is under control for five.

      • So you should have been honest and acknowledged that trading Melancon was the equivalent of waving the white flag, instead of claiming that the bullpen would be better without Melancon. Can’t have it both ways.

        • I was honest about everything. I didn’t make any definitive statements about the bullpen being better. I said they had a chance to be better, depending on how Watson and Rivero performed.

          Statistically, they were better the final two months.

  3. Bring back MM! I really do not care to hear a money argument either. Nutting either competes or sell. All I hear from the PBC is about shortcomings. Please compete.

  4. I’d like to see them take a closer by committee approach and rather than have a set closer and set up man, have a set of guys that are 7-9 inning guys and dictate who pitches based on situation rather than inning. That’s Hurdle’s job though and we all know managers like having set roles.

  5. Am I wrong but doesn’t Bastardo have another year on his contract? If so, they are stuck with him unless they can trade him.

      • Liked your comment about Rivero as a possible Closer. Still only 25 (6+ years younger than TW), and he has the pitches to be a dominant Closer – FB avg of 95+ combined with a dominant changeup.

        TW seemed to lose velocity and elevate his pitches at the end of the year.

    • And, not only another year, but it will be for a salary of $6.5 mil. LHRP’s were in high demand last year – if the trend continues, he could be valuable in a trade.

    • tim opened the barn door enough to let the less than circumspect
      out .so i’ll take the bait . trade watson he’s not a closer
      and they have 7th,8th inning options
      also cull resources from non-tenders to waive and eat
      stewart’ contract. opening up a spot. how about that . i think it
      blanks.

        • Why would you possibly say that Rivero would be a good closer? I saw absolutely nothing from Rivero to believe that he was capable of handling the 7th inning on a regular basis never mind be a closer. The guy shows no command whatsoever and never, EVER pitches a clean inning. Why doesn’t Tim post Rivero’s season numbers? They’re not very impressive.

            • Pretty sure I saw multiple blowups from Rivero. Hughes had the same ERA. Do you think Hughes is ready to close?? Rivero sucks and so does Hutchison. Depending on bums like them is a sure way to ruin 2017.

  6. I remain hopeful because NH has done well in the past building bullpens out of nothing. That said if we are depending on Nicasio in the 8th next year or if Bastinko makes the team then I cannot see how this is going to work out for us. I think Watsons issues are more then his mental approach. His fastball seemed to lose its juice and his breaking balls were pretty flat. I worry he may be starting to breakdown and if thats the case that will be a problem as well.

  7. Crazy thought, Nicasio along with Rivera are the only true strike out relievers on this team, I know Nicasio struggles with lefties, but I will be more comfortable with him as a closer than Watson. Brault and Williams should stay as starters as long as possible, putting them in the pen next year is a bit hasty in my opinion.

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